Equality and religous freedom. Two fundamental rights, belief in which we share, at least in principle, with the Tory party. Maria Miller, Culture Secretary and minister for equalities, may well have our sympathy, then, in urging the Church of England to think again on women bishops. Some MPs, of all major parties, led by former Synod member Frank Field, would go further and legislate to remove the Church of England’s immunities from gender discrimination legislation. This is a mistake. The reality is that antidisestablishmentarianism is no longer an acceptable position.
The truth is that there are tensions between our commitment to equality and religous freedom. I have feminist friends who are Christian (of various denominations), Jewish and Moslem who argue that discriminatory practices within their chosen religious practice are not matters of religious doctrine but merely cultural additions picked up along the way.
Being myself an atheist, I am sceptical. I see organised religions as having been made by men and not by gods. How is it possible for creeds and liturgies to be any more immune than structures from the prejudices of those who made them? And in any case, who are we to tell anyone that something they do or believe is not ‘religion’ but merely ‘culture’.
The commitment to religious freedom does require some level of acceptance of moral relativism. The removal of immunities from gender discrimination legislation for all religions would be tantamount to the proscription of Catholicism, orthodox Judaism and Islam. I doubt that this is what Frank Field, Diana Johnson, Natascha Engel, Elfyn Llwyd, Andrew George, Nicholas Soames, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Eleanor Laing and Helen Goodman have in mind.
But nor is it reasonable to single out just one church, even the established church, and drive out of that church a large number of its worshippers. To do so by forcing on them some form of OMOV structure for the House of Laity which will, amongst other things, exhibit just how few people comprise the Church of England. To then elevate the even smaller residual Church of England to an even more exaggerated status as the embodiment of national morals.
This doesn’t just constitute, as Liberal Conspiracy would have it, a “moment for disestablishmentarians to pounce“. This is a moment where the establishment of the church becomes totally indefensible. Ending it is the only way for the British state to retain its commitment to both equality and religious freedom.